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Does scholarly publishing drive information technology (IT)? Or does IT drive scholarly publishing?

If you believe the former, you essentially agree that academic culture trumps technology — that incentives reflecting a deeper belief system ultimately blunt and shape any intrusion of technology; legal and cultural precedents largely withstand the whims of technological change; and human nature remains fundamentally the same despite a new veneer of technological capabilities.

If you believe the latter, you probably instinctively feel that technological revolutions will inevitably yield social revolutions on a magnitude as great or greater than the technology itself would suggest; that legal and social contracts can crumble under the pressure of technological change; and that human nature can be overcome if surrounded by enough technology.

Open access advocates and self-anointed revolutionaries often come from the “technology trumps culture” camp. I remember asking Harold Varmus in the early days of e-Biomed why it seemed he was attacking subscription publishers. His answer was essentially, “We want to see what the Internet can do to publishing.” This was a “technology drives publishing” answer. It would have been perhaps even more interesting to say, “We want to see what publishing can do to the Internet.” After all, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page did that, they invented PageRank and Google — IT, it should be noted, that only made publishing, and publishing well, more important.

One of the wisest technologists I’ve ever met once told me that the best form of discipline he found for handling technology was very much akin to the discipline of peer-reviewed publishing — that is, preparing something to be publicly released, seeing its flaws, revising it, trying again, revising again, asking others for input in a more or less private way, revising again, checking again, revising once more, letting an expert attack it, responding to questions, revising it, and finally releasing it. From this vantage point, good software development actually mirrors the path to publication quite closely.

Yesterday, a fact-free, shamelessly promotional screed entitled “The Future of Science,” was published as a guest post on TechCrunch by Richard Price, the founder of While TechCrunch should be ashamed of posting such a puff piece, Price falls all over himself groping technology while revealing a great deal of ignorance about what peer-review accomplishes (e.g., in a comment, Price claims peer-review is an aid to discovery).

Price also seems to be about 15 years behind the curve with his revelations: The Internet provides instant distribution! (Ahem, yes, we know. Thanks for that blazing insight.) The Web provides rich media opportunities! (Again, known and rather well-exploited, with video, animations, interactive education, podcasts, interviews, blogs, video abstracts, and many other multimedia initiatives having come to life over the past decade and a half in journals both large and small.) The Internet lets other people comment on stuff! (Yes. You seem very excitable. Would you like some warm tea?)

How much information technology arrogance does Price reveal? He claims “[c]ancer could be cured 2-3 years sooner” if only his outdated information technology dreams could magically come true. He also claims that “[i]n 5-10 years’ time, the way scientists will communicate will be unrecognizable from the way that they have been communicating for the last 400 years” — forgetting entirely that scientific publishers and scientists have been using the Internet via graphical browsers for more than 15 years, and the non-graphical version for more like 30-40 years. Why the next 5-10 years will suddenly upend academic culture is unclear.

It seems to me there’s far more evidence pointing to technology having a secondary role to the cultural goals — and their derivative, incentives — of scientists and academics:

  • Despite more than a decade of rich HTML interfaces, the formatted article encapsulated in the PDF remains the coin of the realm in academic publishing. Innovations around PDF sharing — Medeley specifically — are red hot because of this (a point Price misses completely). Most publishers know that their HTML views are generally waypoints for researchers, who either find the article not to their liking or, if it is to their liking, head quickly to the PDF. The culture of the article object remains powerful. It’s efficient for both the producer and the consumer.
  • Emergent analytical systems — alt-metrics — have made little headway, while the oft-criticized impact factor has become even more deeply integrated into incentive systems related to researcher pay, academic advancement, and journal prestige. The culture of incentives and publish-or-perish has only become more powerful. Again, efficiency plays a big part in this trend. Alt-metrics are very inefficient to both create and consume.
  • Commenting systems and blogs have been effectively stymied by academic culture. For many technology boosters, it seemed comments and blogs would unleash a torrent of ideas and exchanges from and between brash young digital natives. Instead, comments are far fewer than anticipated, and tend to come from mid-career academics at that sweet spot of career stability and continued ambition. With no academic reward and much risk to blogging, academic blogging has been spotty at best — it works here and there, and with the right leaders, but not because of the technology itself.

A recent interview with the departing chair of the Australian Research Council underscores how complicated and nuanced the zone of scientific research communications is, a complexity that dominates any technological capabilities:

. . . this is a very complex space. It’s much more complex than many of the open access advocates understand. The naive position is, yes, it’s taxpayer-funded research, we should make it publicly available. But that doesn’t necessarily make it accessible.

I read this interview one recent morning just before discussing a complex problem — potential author malfeasance — with a colleague of mine at another publisher. The potential problems with data fabrication and manipulation have nothing to do with technology. Academic and scholarly cultures discipline liars and cheats. Technology can help us find more of those, but the fundamental issue isn’t a technological one.

The complexity of publishing emerges in many other ways — whether it’s publishing staff who help train working scientists how to be editors, acquisition editors identifying academics to produce new books, customer service staff who respond to reader inquiries and problems, or governance bodies who help shape the strategies of evolving organizations.

When you believe technology drives scholarly publishing, scholarly publishing can look like one undifferentiated field — medical publishing is just like math publishing — that seems susceptible to a few conjoined current IT trends. Ultimately, we get superficial hypotheses being over-interpreted and pressed into service beyond the breaking point.

Putting the cart before the horse can lead to lurking dangers. Because publishers like BioMed Central seem to believe that technology is at the heart of a publishing revolution — rather than publishing being at the heart of a technology revolution — they have enabled institutions and companies to pay for quicker, cheaper paths to publication. Companies involved include the world’s second-largest tobacco company and pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Pasteur:

Do you realize that you can now publish in journals published by BioMed Central, Chemistry Central and SpringerOpen without directly paying any article-processing charges? Payment of your article-processing charges is covered by Sanofi Pasteur MSD’s Prepay Membership.

Technologists also believe that publishing is transportable — anyone can be a publisher. All you need are some basic skills, access to a blogging platform, and some determination. While for certain forms of expression this can be true — this blog is an example — for a complex organism like an academic press or an academic journal, much more is needed, including people with the talent and experience to get it right. I may think I’m a good cook because I can occasionally prepare a surprisingly tasty meal on a Sunday night by following someone else’s recipe and using the right ingredients, but that by no means translates into my ability to create, finance, run, and manage a restaurant. If you’re a “cooking technologist,” you think all you need is an oven, pans, and ingredients.

The time to publication is also decried by technologists, who believe that because you can post a page in a New York minute, posting a scientific article can’t be much harder. This is utter ignorance. If you’ve ever grumbled about having a plane delayed because it hasn’t passed all its safety checks, then caught yourself remembering what’s could happen if someone were to skip steps, you see where haste makes waste. Is it wise to publish as quickly as technology allows? Or is using technology when the information’s as correct as it can be the more prudent and professional course?

One more example of how technology subordinates itself to culture comes from the early days of the printing press. One likes to think that the printing of the Gutenberg Bible led to an amazing book culture and presses springing up everywhere with classics and new works rolling off presses across Europe. The fact is that the “Bible” part of the Gutenberg story is more important culturally, because it was the Catholic Church that promulgated presses in order to print indulgences. By printing these valuable certificates, local clergy could make a mint. In fact, indulgences became a de facto and ultimately devalued currency, leading Martin Luther to nail his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. The culture of Europe was a church culture, so technology was subordinated to its will. And a few years ago, the Pope built a Facebook page.

This brings to mind a graphic I refer to often, from “The Clock of the Long Now” by Stuart Brand. In it, various levels of the world are depicted as changing at various speeds, a nice depiction of the interactions this post covers. Each deeper layer has modifies and slows the layer above, with the ultimate rate-limiter being nature itself.

Various dimensions of the world change at different rates.

As you can see, Brand and the other thinkers in the Long Now Foundation believe that culture changes more slowly. Has the Catholic Church gone away in the few hundred years since Luther’s Protestant Reformation took root? It is still with us, and has a huge effect in the world, even in the face of the changes wrought by technologies like printing presses, motion pictures, radio, air travel, medical care, and the Internet.

Publishers who understand IT are doing better than those who don’t. But that doesn’t mean that information technology drives publishing, or that information technology will do much to revolutionize it.

If the goal is to change the culture of publishing, those who wish to do so will need more than technology and its superficial effects. They will need to go deep into the incentives, cultures, and habits of mind over generations.

So far, there is little evidence that technologists will do anything more than provide publishers, academics, and researchers with more ways of doing what they’ve always done.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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30 Thoughts on "IT Arrogance vs. Academic Culture — Why the Outcome Is Virtually Certain"

Technology – whether its a sharpened stick or the internet – will be subordinated to other interests. Mainly self-interests and herd-interests (Aka “culture”, “fashion” etc).

Kent, I can’t help noticing that you are most extreme, most sarcastic, and most aggressive when you are discussing – and attacking – Open Access. Is there some self-interest driving this?

Open Access may be enabled by technology, but it isn’t it driven by the same conflict of interests that everything else is? The technology may or may not be the sharper-stick that tilts the balance – but technology is never the driver of anything.

I disagree about OA being a special target, but its advocates possess attributes I target. Please review any posts I’ve written on a few of Nicholas Carr’s gimmicky ideas, people who I think misunderstand “disruption,” trust in the scientific literature (and its abuse), people who are reflexively critical of long-term strategies working (e.g., Amazon, YouTube, Apple), stick-in-the-mud attitudes around e-books and the like, people who don’t understand copyright except at the grade school level, and generally people who think it’s not very important to get things right and think things through. Unfortunately, some OA advocates fit into this area, but they are not alone.

Dave, the economic system is based on self and herd interest, namely what people will buy to satisfy their needs. Do you have an alternative? The only one I know of is government control of production or distribution. Is that what you are proposing? It is a theme in OA. PubMed Central for example.

No – there’s no alternative to self and herd interest – none that is either likely to happen or be justified. I’d like to rather more *enlightened* self-interest driving decisions – be they individual or herd decisions, than the myopia that our system dictates.

I think an underlying problem with our (the american..) system is the assumption that a set of individuals each acting in they own interests adds up to something that in the interests everyone, or most people, whereas it can add to being in almost nobody’s interest.

Many people share your concerns, but the alternative to economic democracy has yet to be found. As Mencken put it, democracy is the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. I do not see how our system dictates myopia, or anything else for that matter. But then, I like the world as it is.

Indeed, technological revolutions are cultural revolutions, that is, changes in systems of behavior. The technology itself is a relatively small element in these changes, which is why they take so long. But this makes the technologist’s frustration and moral outrage all the more understandable. Social revolutionaries are no different. They are applying some of the force that is necessary. It is hard work and slow going. And of course they are often wrong, just like scientists. Progress depends heavily on error, so confusion is the price of progress.

Thanks for the interesting post. I’m a newcomer to the Scholarly Kitchen and to blog commenting in general. But as an active Twitter user with a feed enriched in science shop talk, I get a lot of second-hand exposure to the culture vs technology debate in academic publishing.

If I have to pick a side, I’d call myself a technophilic pragmatist, a position that has been informed by my recent and ongoing experience managing the roll out of my new PLoS ONE paper. The altmetrics crowd will have learned discussions about the significance of the ratio of HTML page views to PDF downloads, and I’m all for it. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that article-level metrics will improve in granularity and specificity over time. But as you point out it doesn’t make a lick of difference if no one is actually commenting on the paper! (That infamous dark fly paper has almost 200K views but only 2 comments, 1 of which was an auto-generated synopsis of press coverage).

My approach to the online scientific commenting vacuum is admittedly ad hoc: leveraging relationships which I developed over the years through email-based colloquy with experts in my field. But it’s been like pulling teeth just to relocate a discussion from a two-person email thread to the open comment section of my PLoS ONE paper, for the reasons we all know and lament. As it stands now I’ve convinced only one peer to comment on my paper, but I’ll keep fighting the good fight because it’s in my self-interest to get critical feedback.

So that’s the unvarnished view from the OA trenches..

I remember the good old days of academic publishing when we used something called “paper” and corresponded by carrier pigeon. Then some mindless twerp invented something called a computer and we used something called troff for typesetting until another “technology booster” introduced LaTeX. At that point we started producing PostScript documents until that was displaced by PDF. Worst of all, some publishing venues are demanding that I use a horrid piece of software called Microsoft Word.

Meanwhile, some bloke invents something called the WWW because he thinks it would help researchers at some joint called CERN in Switzerland share and retain data and papers. And a pair of geeks from Stanford decided they could do a better job of indexing and searching this WWW thing. They’ve made it too darned fast to find everything.

These darned technology boosters have ruined academic publishing for all of us. Bring back the pigeons!

And we end up with only more of what we started with — more papers, more citations, more authors.

… And a different culture. To say that technology doesn’t or shouldn’t change culture and behaviour is clearly incorrect. The very best and most useful pieces of technology succeeded because they do precisely that. Technology is a change agent and it enables new cultures to emerge. Think Grigori Perelman can publish his paper to the arXiv and win the freaking Fields Medal, without needing to publish in any of the established journals. The existence of this digital repository made it possible for his paper to be submitted to his peers (all of them, not just 3 or 4 of them) quickly, whereupon his proofs could be subjected to a thorough review.

Maybe is going to help change the face of academic publishing, maybe it’s not. I do agree it was a bit of a puff piece on Tech Crunch, but that’s no reason to dismiss the guy’s efforts entirely. Also, he’s hardly from the school of IT arrogance – he’s a philosophy Ph.D. I think it’s more likely he’s from a generation that is used to communicating with different tools, and sees no reason why the benefits of those tools shouldn’t be brought to academia. Everyone, scientists, their employers, the people who fund research (which is the taxpayer in many cases) should be encouraging more experiments like We have no idea of what will ultimately work and what won’t. So we should be exploring, forming hypotheses and discarding them when they are shown to be false. Why we can’t approach this objectively and dispassionately the same way we would any experiment is beyond me. See, ResearchGate and all the others for what they are: experiments in academic publishing.

Also, can you please explain what you meant by: ‘It would have been perhaps even more interesting to say, “We want to see what publishing can do to the Internet.” After all, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page did that, they invented PageRank and Google’? Hasn’t the WWW been all about publishing from the day it was born? I think I’m just not understanding what you’re trying to say. See my previous comment above from April 30.

Publishing itself – in the sense of making public – may not be driven by technology, but the way it is being done certainly is. Definitely since Laurens Janszoon Koster, or Gutenberg, invented movable type, printing technology has driven publishing. The early publishers – the Elsevier family comes to mind (no historical connection with the modern publisher of the same name) – were technologists: printers. The Internet is just the latest technology that drives publishing.

Interestingly, in the light if the three bullet points Kent mentions, if you have come across Utopia Documents ( you will know that it is technology again that is materially advancing the usefulness of the PDF, and it incorporates in-text commenting (no need to go to blogs) as well as alternative metrics (and a whole range of other functionalities, such as data integration). This is capable of driving changes in publishing again.

Cultural needs and expectations are often created by technological advances; not the other way around. Though it may take a while for those cultural expectations to become commonplace, as in the movement to Open Access (a cultural desideratum that wouldn’t even be there were it not for the technology to make it possible).

I disagree with this statement: “Cultural needs and expectations are often created by technological advances; not the other way around.” That is, it is also the case that technological needs and expectations are often created by cultural advances. For example, the rise of democracy created a vast need for communication technology. It works both ways. In a nonlinear feedback system nobody is in charge.

Kent, it is not clear what relevance you think that BioMed Central prepay memberships have to this post but it is important to correct the misconception that authors from member institutions (whether they are universities, hospitals or corporations) are treated any differently during the peer review process than non members. Editors and editorial staff involved in the peer review process of all BioMed Central journals are blinded to any payment arrangements, whether authors are from membership institutions or are one of the large percentage of scientists who are granted waivers. Articles are accepted or rejected based on the content alone, and not on any payment arrangements they have with BioMed Central.

  • Deborah Kahn, Publishing Director, BioMed Central
  • Apr 30, 2012, 3:39 PM
  • Reply to Comment

Yes, but please tell me why you accept papers from the tobacco industry at all. Most medical journals I know of do not as a matter of policy.

I plan to look into this further, by the way. It seems wrong on the face of it.

Here is a list of papers from British American Tobacco of research they have funded:

A very quick check shows journals from BMC, Elsevier, Wiley, American Chemical Socirty and the Royal Chemistry Society (but I’m not wasting my time compiling a full list).

I’m afraid that this looks like an example of condemning OA publishers for things that lots of other publishers are doing. Always an issue when one lets ideology come before the facts.

Yes, that was going to be my next step. However, accepting payments from tobacco firms to grease the skids for publishing? That’s a little different in my book.

Also, the next time I find an OA advocate condemning publishers for things they do — oh wait, Gowers already did that, by saying that bundling was bad while the LMS bundled their journals he held up as examples of how to do it right.

That’s the underlying point to all this — there’s not as much room to drift away from the core requirements of our field as some dream.

I do hope that you are going to produce evidence that BMC is accepting payments from tobacco firms to ‘grease the skids for publishing’.

  • David
  • May 1, 2012, 3:09 AM

Because scientific knowledge is ‘value-free’, objectionable people and organisations can still contribute useful information, insights and knowledge. At least there is a possibility to expose potential competing interests in an author-side payment system, which isn’t there in a subscription-supported system. Subscriptions can be paid for by any number of objectionable people and nobody will know.

  • Jan Velterop
  • May 1, 2012, 7:20 AM

What?! You’re equating paying to receive information with paying to publish information? If someone “objectionable” buys a subscription, that doesn’t change the information they buy. If someone pays to publish, that changes the information being published. If a corporation pays to facilitate publication for its employees, that’s sponsored publication, which is different than sponsored distribution (paying for copies to go out without any control or influence over the editorial content) or sponsored subscriptions (paying for a group to receive a publication free of charge).

To equate author-pays with reader-pays on this one makes no sense whatsoever.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 1, 2012, 7:55 AM

You would have a point if it weren’t for the fact that articles are accepted for publication on the basis of peer-review. Articles are not published in OA journals – or any other journals, one hopes – because they are paid for; they are published because they are scientifically robust. So they are not ‘sponsored publications’. Any payment on behalf of the author sustains (sponsors) the journal, just as payment for a subscription does.

It is a common misunderstanding about author-paid OA journals that payment is for publication. It is not. It is for organising and facilitating the peer-review process, and the peers don’t get paid.

The flaw in just about *all* scholarly publishing is that the weight of the costs is exclusively loaded on the published articles. That true for the author-paid model as well as for the subscription model. Whereas the real costs to the publisher (apart from print and print distribution, irrelevant for most OA journals) are primarily proportional to the number of articles that need to be peer-reviewed. That’s why Nature needs at least $30,000 per published article for OA (the number was mentioned at the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into OA in 2004). A fairer system, across the board, would be a fee-per-submission system. Logically right; psycho-logically perhaps problematic. Academics are not as rational as often thought.

  • Jan Velterop
  • May 1, 2012, 8:31 AM

Peer-review is not one uniformly reliable process. It varies wildly from field to field and journal to journal. It is not a magic bullet that makes everything better. Peer-review adds something to the publishing process, but author disclosures, removal of conflicts of interest, statistical review, editing for language and clarity, fact-checking, reference-checking — they all matter.

One does hope that articles aren’t published because they are paid for, but if someone is paying a publisher for anything having to do with content — even something as simple as pre-paying fees — it should be made clear to the reader. This should be non-controversial.

As to your argument that author-paid OA journals aren’t getting paid for publication but for running the peer-review process, that seems like pure sophistry to me. If that were the case, then there might be vast unpublished but reviewed repositories out there. They are PUBLISHERS, not peer-review systems. Perhaps if your analysis is widely embraced, we could have OA organizations taking fees to run peer-review, and then providing the papers at no charge to publishers who could then publish them, perhaps on a subscription basis. Yes, that sounds rather a good idea.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 1, 2012, 10:56 PM

Well, they call themselves publishers, but peer-review outfits is precisely what they are. The facilitation and organisation of peer review is the principal raison d’etre for modern journal ‘publishers’. As for your comment that “we could have OA organizations taking fees to run peer-review, and then providing the papers at no charge to publishers”, indeed, that’s exactly what PLoS and BMC do. Except, they also make the papers available at no charge to anyone else, so good luck if you subsequently want to ‘publish’ them in subscription journals. I’m glad you find that a good idea! You’re free to do so. The articles PLoS and BMC publish are covered by a CC-BY licence, with no commercial restrictions.

  • Jan Velterop
  • May 2, 2012, 1:56 AM

BioMed Central has nearly 400 members, including some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Harvard Faculty Advisory Council are advising all faculty to publish in open access journals. Are suggesting that all these organisations are “paying to facilitate publication for their employees”? As per my previous post, all papers from wherever they are submitted, in BioMed Central journals are subjected to rigorous peer review and accepted on the basis of referee reports, with no knowledge by the editors of how (or whether) the article is being paid for, or by whom.

Kent, to your point about the cultural goals, influence and impact of academics and scientists – it will be interesting to see how the game changes if impact factors cease to be used by funding bodies to judge the impact of research outputs. The new Research Excellence Framework system for higher education in UK will rely on (among other things) article citation counts from Scopus and will explicitly ignore impact factors. The advocates of altmetrics will surely see this move towards article-level metrics as an encouraging step, as will open access publishers if they can demonstrate a correlation between article access and article citations.

More difficult would be the replacement of impact factor as a measure of influence for editorial board members and peer reviewers. In order for the technology-driven ‘publish-then-filter’ model to succeed there would need to be a similar incentive for academics to participate in the quality control process i.e. a meaningful measure of contributor influence. A technologist could design a suitable algorithm, but could easily underestimate the time it would take for it to be acknowledged, adopted and valued by academia and funding bodies.

With so much positive momentum, it is feasible that a technologist will develop a publish-then-filter system capable of facilitating a major change in the publishing industry. However, it will succeed only in so far as it meets the needs of academics and scientists – and allows the market to achieve greater efficiency and a more balanced exchange of value.

It is therefore correct to say that academics and scientists hold greater power in the relationship and sensible to highlight the scale of the challenge ahead – with the intention of helping the technologists and innovators to better plan their resources, manage expectations and save some energy for the long game.

This nice post is truly scientific: it proposes a theory that is refutable. And with the other great change of the Internet–that nothing can be deleted and all can be searched–this exposition of theory will be findable in 5 years, by one vaunting party or another.

It sounds like you’ve just now realized that Internet Technology has habitualized the entire globe, that “search” is the Universal Idea, the only way to rebound is to get out and you are stuck, you yourself can no longer see past gizmos. Microsoft now owns most of Barnes n noble because they understand somebody let some 1980 bbs hack crew strangle economics, humanity, and popular culture. Cloud computing itself epidemizes price gouging and cost cutting, the same failure as solar, research and development based on lowering the bill. We need to evacuate the universal idea. Business globally has become reliant on front page search results.

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